The Xylo’s gates were rusted, half of the mirrors were jammed, and the side mirrors were broken. At a glance, the vehicle was clearly nearing its end, Khan admitted. But he made a few calls, and after a lot of bargaining, he began the long, hard journey of 180 kilometers from Jammu to Kashmir.
Non-local laborers are among the most vulnerable to the militant attacks in the Kashmir Valley. These have been on the rise in recent months. The danger, even the quite real danger of targeted killings, didn’t deter the group of five laborers in Khan’s taxi. 25-year-old Mahesh, ducked in the last seat of the vehicle, was headed to work at a brick kiln. As he explained, he had no real choice; he would otherwise die of hunger anyway.
“We are not doing anything wrong,” Khan said. “Why should anyone target us?”
As he geared towards the Nagrota passing, Khan finally decided to attend to his ever-buzzing phone. His friend, Aqib, who drives a truck on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, needed help. “The road is jammed till hell,” he said in Kashmiri. “Can you pick me up in Udhampur?” This was a real emergency, Khan learned. Aqib’s mother-in-law needed urgently to be taken to hospital, and that’d require his presence.
Khan and Aqib, both 31, met on the highway, and their friendship goes back nearly a decade. They bonded over the endless traffic and recurring landslides, and shared stories of their best — and worst — rides and passengers.
Khan raced through loaded trucks, a flock of vehicles carrying partying tourists, and, sometimes, sheep and buffalos. Plus a few landslides. “On this road, the clock runs faster,” Aqib joked. “Don’t you think?”
It doesn’t. They drove in turns, reaching Qazigund, the Gateway of Kashmir, in about 10 hours, at 11:30 pm.
But just as they could sense home nearby, the tide turned against them. They’d arranged to drop the laborers 2 kilometers from Pampore. That was the promised word. “A driver’s promise is set in stone,” Khan had said.
On the phone at around midnight, the laborers’ contractor gave Khan the exact location: the workers must be dropped at a brick kiln in Chattergam, a 12-kilometer detour via two villages. That was not possible, both Khan and Aqib said firmly.
“The time and situation doesn’t allow us,” Khan tried to explain. The previous day, a non-local bank manager had been shot dead in Kulgam, and that night, two non-local laborers were attacked, one of them fatally, in central Kashmir’s Chadoora.
Parked on the highway, Khan in vain tried to reason with the contractor regarding the security of the laborers. Nobody would budge. And another hour passed. Then came a solution: drop the laborers safely at privately-owned rooms in the Pantha Chowk, the entry point of Srinagar.
Cutting through the darkness, the taxi reached a shady complex. “Ye’t cha kah?” Aqib and Khan shouted at the tops of their lungs. They knocked door after door. Only one answered.
A laborer, wearing an undershirt, opened the door to an absurd scene in the one-room lodge. Nearly 20 people were lying on the floor, all tucked in closely. The laborers were refused shelter.
“This is inhumane,” Aqib lamented. And the taxi moved again.
“Drop them on the circle,” the contractor said on the call. “I’ll pick them in the morning.”
“Have you lost your mind? B**tard!” Aqib replied. He added in frustration: “Halaat chayi paai?”
“Drop them to Lal Chowk then.”
Aqib and Khan couldn’t agree to that, either. The laborers had a total sum of 21 rupees on them. “What are they going to eat? … Where will they sleep?” the drivers told the contractor.
Amid this fiasco, the taxi suffered a flat tire.
“You have totally lost it,” Aqib shouted at the contractor, sprinkling in a few choice abusive phrases. “We are Kashmiris and we are not that kind of people [who would abandon a passenger midway].”
The drivers murmured in private, snapped the contractor’s calls, and drove the laborers (very slowly, on their flat tire) to a mutual friend’s houseboat nearby.
The drivers gave the houseboat owner a minimal charge, a few hundred rupees to the laborers for their dinner, and bid them goodbye. “No money is greater than our word,” Khan told them.
Two more passengers to go. At 2:00 am, they stopped to replace the tire. While Khan and Aqib brought down the spare, the passengers sipped tea, now shivering in Srinagar’s colder weather.
At 2:30 in the night, they drove through the city’s eerie silence and barking dogs to reach downtown. An elderly non-local couple waited in the middle of the street. As the last laborer got down from the taxi, the couple’s eyes lightened. A young girl watched the man shyly from behind them. The scheduled engagement is not far away now.
Smiles. Hugs. And gratitude. They blessed the drivers with prayers. The long day had come to an end. Now, they hoped to finally reach their own homes and waiting families.
Then the tire went flat again.
They shared a smiling glance. Khan parked on the roadside and took out three blankets that he shared with Aqib and me. “This is the life of a driver,” Khan told me as he reclined his seat. “After dropping everyone home, we couldn’t reach ours.”
Published by courtesy of The Kashmir Walla.
The Kashmir Walla, where this piece first appeared on June 5th, is an independent news and culture magazine based in Srinagar, Kashmir. Its founding editor, Fahad Shah, has been in jail on a series of bogus charges for nearly five months. The Kashmir Walla needs your help for legal fees, and to maintain its much-needed independent voice in this troubled region. Please donate to our worthy friends and colleagues at The Kashmir Walla.